Portrait of a Woman, Senegal, ca. 1910

Colorization by Manos Athanasiadis

Colorization by Manos Athanasiadis

Portrait of a Woman, Senegal (Unknown Artist / The Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York, Gift of Susan Mullin Vogel) ca. 1910

Portrait of a Woman, Senegal (Unknown Artist / The Metropolitan Museum of Art – New York, Gift of Susan Mullin Vogel) ca. 1910

The photograph, snapped by an artist as anonymous as the picture’s star, was part of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled “In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa” (August 31, 2015–January 3, 2016)
In a culture in which the body had to be covered by clouds of crisp textiles, the face, hands, and feet were often all that was visible. Here, the woman’s hands, resting on top of one another on her abdomen, play an active role in the composition. The gesture allows the sitter to display an extensive array of jewelry: a silver ring, filigree-work bracelets, two necklaces, earrings, and golden pendants decorating her coiffure, which is set in a style called Nguuka. Created using black wool to produce two symmetrical voluminous spheres held by a textile on top of the head, this hairdo became popular in the first decades of the twentieth century among married women.
Few glass negatives have survived in Senegal from the early twentieth century. African art specialist Susan Mullin Vogel acquired this negative in Dakar in 1975. New York photographer Jerry L. Thompson produced the accompanying gelatin silver print that same year.
The exhibition, curated by Yaelle Biro with research from specialist Giulia Paoletti, explores how photographic technologies — which became available on the continent in the 1840s — evolved in local communities as a way of mining identity in an ever-changing space.
Instead of focusing on the European photojournalists and documentarians who visited the countries throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the show celebrates the local studios and artists who made the medium their own.
Exhibition Overview – This exhibition presents one hundred years of portrait photography in West Africa through nearly eighty photographs taken between the 1870s and the 1970s. These works, many of which are being shown for the first time, are drawn from the Metropolitan Museum’s Visual Resource Archives in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, with additions from the Department of Photographs.
The installation seeks to expand our understanding of West African portrait photography by rendering the broad variety of these practices and aesthetics. It juxtaposes photographs, postcards, real photo postcards, and original negatives taken both inside and outside the studio by amateur and professional photographers active from Senegal to Cameroon and from Mali to Gabon. These photographers explored the possibilities of their medium, developing a rich aesthetic vocabulary through compelling self-portraits, staged images against painted backdrops or open landscapes, and casual snapshots of leisurely times. Regardless of their unique place in the history of photography in West Africa—from the formality of the earlier studio poses to the theatricality of Fosso’s fantasies—the sitter’s self-assured and unabashed presence fully engages the viewer.
Photography allowed artists and patrons alike to express their articulation of what modernity looked like—one that was constantly reinvented.
Pioneers of Photography – Photography arrived on the African continent as early as the 1840s. In a relatively short time, local communities adapted this new medium according to preexisting visual codes and traditions of portraiture. Starting in the 1860s, West African, Asian, European, and even African American photographers traveled along the Atlantic coast and founded temporary and permanent studios that catered to the local elite. At these studios, patrons carefully picked their style of dress and coiffures, and inaugurated the poses that would become the canon in photographic practices.
Sources/More to Read:
Met Museum: In and Out of the Studio, Photographic Portraits from West Africa
FOTOTA – Perspectives africaines en photographie: Interview with Giulia Paoletti, co-curator
The Huffington Post: Captivating portraits from West Africa reveal 100 Years of life across the Atlantic

A related post, in Colorem:
Solomon Osagie Alonge: Photographer to the Royal Court of Benin, Nigeria, ca.1950’s
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One thought on “Portrait of a Woman, Senegal, ca. 1910

  1. Pingback: Revue de presse #45 – Décembre 2016 – FOTOTA – Perspectives africaines en photographie

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